Like many people in our area of the mid-Atlantic, we’ve had a lot of rain. 8″ in June, including a ten day dry spell, so 8″ over 20 days. Some of our 540 Roma paste tomatoes suddenly wilted, about ten days ago. Argh! Were our tomatoes drowning or was it the dreaded Bacterial Wilt?
My first response was to stop everyone touching them. No string-weaving till we figured out if the problem was contagious or not. Then I read up about Bacterial Wilt(Ralstonia solanacearum, formerly called Pseudomonas solanacearum). ” Plants wilt and die rapidly without the presence of yellowing or spotting of the foliage”. We had the rapid wilting, with no yellowing or spotting. “The disease is most commonly found in low, wet areas of fields and is most active at temperatures above 75 degrees F.” Check, check. But drowning is most common in low, wet areas too! The affected plants were in the lowest areas, but that didn’t tell us whether it was drowning or bacteria causing the problem.
Next I counted the wilted plants in each row. The total was 81 plants the first day, 92 the second (uh-oh!), but 65 the third day, 51 the fourth day, up to 57 the next day, then 41. By this time I was concluding these plants were not dying rapidly, so maybe it wasn’t wilt. One site said plants could die within a few hours of starting to wilt. Other sites said plants could wilt a bit in the middle of the day, then recover at night. I don’t think that’s Bacterial Wilt.
The third day I sacrificed the worst plant and cut through the stem to look at the xylem (water conducting pipes). Yes they were brown, not happy. Does that happen in drowning plants or just those infected with bacteria? I don’t know. The cut ends weren’t sticky, as suggested for bacterial wilt, didn’t pull out sticky threads when pressed together and pulled apart. So next I tried the definitive test for tomato bacterial wilt: I cut a length of stem, stabbed it through with a knife and suspended it in a jar of water to watch for milky bacterial ooze streaming from the cut. Initially a small amount of something gently fell from the cut end. Then stopped. I watched for 5 minutes (some sites said it took several minutes for the ooze to leave). Nothing more happened. I’ve decided they were drowning, so we’re back to string-weaving.
We transplanted these around May 5, and tomorrow we’ll do our first harvest (about 66 days from transplanting). These are listed in Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog as 75 days from transplanting to harvest. We grow these Virginia Select Romas here in our garden and sell the seed to SESE. I’ve been selecting for earliness (as well as good yields and tolerance to Septoria leaf spot) and I’ve been wondering what impact I’m having on the “earliness” part of the equation. Seems like it’s working well.
Meanwhile, the plants are recovering from near-drowning and assaults by all manner of other disease organisms that like warm damp weather. I see some Septoria, some early blight, but abundant healthy foliage too.I think they will outgrow the current issues.
We have been making great progress trimming and sorting our garlic. We’ve trimmed it all! In just a couple of weeks! Yay for us!
But as soon as the tomato trouble gets resolved, another problem arises. Some of our softneck garlic bulbs have onion maggots! What to do? We also had a problem with helpers bagging up garlic before it was fully cured, so we’ve spread the trimmed bulbs back out on racks to finish drying. Is there anything we can do about the maggots? If you have suggestions, please add a comment! I know what to do to reduce our chances of getting them in future: pay attention to rotations, practice good sanitation by removing all allium bits from the plot when we harvest, control weeds ahead of planting garlic (and of course while it’s growing!).
My understanding of the life-cycle of the onion maggot is that pupae overwinter in the soil, adults emerge in spring. 9 days later they lay eggs at the base of plants. Eggs hatch in a week, maggots burrow into the roots of the plants, spending 2 or 3 weeks up to no good. Then they leave the bulbs and head back into the soil to pupate. If we leave our garlic on racks for three weeks, will the larvae just drop to the ground below the racks? Can we then sort the good bulbs from the bad? Will they all be infested by then? It seems biologically determined that the larvae leave after about 3 weeks. How much damage will they do while we wait?
Or can we try sorting good bulbs from bad now? We’ll need to take a closer look at the crop and see what we can do. We also wanted to save stock for replanting, and obviously don’t want to replant infested cloves. Any there any garlic experts reading this?
This is the time of year I start selecting and labeling plants to save seed from two of my favorite open pollinated vegetable varieties. For crops where the fruit is the edible part of the plant, it’s very easy. You simply let the fruit get a bit over-ripe, then use a wet seed extraction process to get the seeds.
We have been selecting Crimson Sweet watermelon for early fruiting, large size, disease-resistance and flavor, and this seed is now sold by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange as Crimson Sweet Virginia Select. (They supplied this photo.) We used to mulch our watermelon patch with hay, which actually delays ripening, because it cools the soil. So working to get earlier watermelons was very important to us. Using the biodegradable plastic mulch warms the soil, causing the melons to ripen earlier. The combination of plastic mulch and seed selection means we now get melons when it’s hot, and not just at the end of summer as we did previously!
Once the melons start to form on the vines, I walk through the patch and write a number on the skin of big melons with healthy foliage. I just did this last week. I numbered 1-42, using a grease pencil. Large early size is related to early ripening, but it’s not the same thing. If the numbered melon doesn’t actually ripen early, I don’t save seed from it. Once the melons stat to ripen, I look through the patch once a week and choose 6-8 ripe numbered melons to save seed from. I cut open the melon and eat a big spoonful from the heart. If the flavor is only so-so (I have high standards!) I don’t save seed, but just put the melon in the kitchen for everyone to eat. I keep a log book and record the harvest date, size and flavor. Then I scoop the seedy part of the melon into a seed bucket and the edible flesh into a clean bucket for us to eat later.
I ferment the seed for a few days, then wash and dry it. Usually I do one batch of seed a week for about 6 weeks, from late July to early September. Ones not ripe by then can’t qualify as early-ripening!
On a different day of the week, I collect ripe fruit from the Roma tomatoes. Here we are selecting for earliness and disease resistance, particularly resistance to Septoria leaf spot, which used to plague us.
As the first fruits ripen, I walk along the rows with two colors of biodegradable flagging tape. I use red tape to mark plants with early ripening fruits (and average or better foliage). Later in the season I also use another tape to mark plants with particularly healthy foliage and a reasonable yield of fruit. I tie the tape to the neighboring T-post, with a bow on the side of the post indicating which direction from the post the chosen plant is. Early in the season all the foliage is healthy – the leaf diseases develop as the season goes on.
Once a week I harvest a couple of ripe tomatoes from each marked plant. I don’t extract seed immediately. but store the bucket of tomatoes for a few days in a secret place (where no-one will find and eat them!) This lets the fruit and seeds mature a bit more. To save the seed, I cut the tomatoes lengthwise and spoon out the seed. I wash the tomatoes first, so I can then save the flashy “shells” for making salsa or tomato sauce. The tomato seed goes through the same kind of fermentation process that we use for the watermelon seed. This is a surprisingly easy way to separate the seed from the extraneous stuff, and in addition, fermentation kills off the spores of certain diseases.
This photo of Septoria Leaf Spot is from Cornell University Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Service.
With both these crops, we get both food and seed from the same fruits. And we are developing the varieties in ways that work best in our climate and under our methods of growing these crops. Plus I get to sell seed to SESE, as well as have enough for ourselves. The process of saving our own seeds involves selecting from at least 25 plants, to ensure some genetic diversity, and this inevitably leads to saving more seed than we need just for ourselves. Happily, that means we can supply this seed to others who want similar traits in their crops.
This is a long post, but if your weather is set for all-day drizzle like it is here, you’ll have time to read it. I’m also sending a much shorter version to Mother Earth News, where I’m joining their Blog Squad. So if you are very short of time, you can look there in a few weeks.
This season is becoming past-tense, and some of us are already starting to think about next year. Seed companies are putting their catalogs together, and soon we’ll be snuggled beside our woodstoves perusing them, hoping to find varieties that will not repeat this year’s problems. Reading between the lines of the variety descriptions is a science and an art. How not to get carried away by all the positive exclamations and miss some basic fact that would tell you this variety is not for your farm?
Which catalogs do you buy from? See the Safe Seed Pledge list for companies that do not knowingly buy, sell or trade genetically engineered seeds or plants. You may want to buy from local small seed companies who specialize in locally adapted varieties. Crops that overwinter in zone 7 could die in zone 5.
“Adaptable”“easy to grow” are good phrases to look for. Naturally, your climate will affect what grows well. Here it’s too hot for us to grow runner beans, Brussels sprouts, or cauliflower. We don’t buy our okra seed from companies in the north – they are focused on varieties which will produce a decent crop in their climates. Our worries are different. “Requires an attentive grower” is a helpful warning. The size and skill of your labor force matter. Can you pick beans quickly enough to earn a decent living? “Best for organic production” means it doesn’t require lots of pesticides to keep it producing.
Heirlooms, OPs or hybrids?
What does your market want? Are they truly committed to heirlooms, or is flavor actually more important? Those are not the same thing! Some old varieties are rare for a reason! People didn’t like them much! Others are fantastic and easy to grow in quantity. Finding which are which is difficult. Heirloom tomatoes are a special challenge: which ones crack and split? The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table: Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World’s Most Beautiful Fruit by Amy Goldman is not just a beautiful book, but a very useful one. The author spills the beans on which varieties are worth growing. She has books on squash and melons too, but I haven’t had the joy of reading those yet. Another reliable source on tomatoes is Craig LeHoullier.
An early zucchini might be 47 days from direct sowing, but even the late Costata Romanesco is only 52 days. How important is it to have zucchini 5 days earlier? And after your first sowing, is it still as important to have a 47-day variety? Or could you choose a different one (with other good qualities) and simply sow it a day or two sooner?
Raven zucchini has no listed disease-resistance, while Dunja withstands Powdery Mildew, Papaya Ringspot Virus (I had no idea. . .), Watermelon Mosaic Virus and Zucchini Mosaic Virus. Dunja has high yields of dark green zucchini, and so does Raven. Dunja has open plants and only small spines, so harvest is easy. Raven has open plants too. No mention of spines – are they wicked? Dunja is organically grown, Raven is not. How about price? Dunja costs twice as much as Raven! What price organic seed, disease-resistance and short spines?
Spineless Perfection (45 days) and Tigress (50 days) offer the same disease-resistance package. Both are medium green, high yielding, cylindrical zucchini. Spineless Perfection has an open plant, Tigress is only semi-open, and makes no promises about lack of spines. Price is very similar. Risk the five-day delay, the spines and the only “semi-easy harvesting” to save a dollar on 1000 seeds?
Disease resistance and tolerance
Good catalogs have a wealth of information about disease resistance or tolerance of their varieties. Do read their list of codes or abbreviations. (Admittedly the lists can sometimes be hard to find.) Don’t be a vegetable hypochondriac! Don’t let the length of the list scare you off – your plants won’t get everything listed. Johnny’s had 66 items in their Vegetable Disease Code list last time I counted.
It really helps if you monitored your plants and know which diseases you are trying to avoid. We don’t worry about Pea Leaf Roll Virus or Enation Mosaic Virus of peas because our pea season is so short that the plants will be dead of heat stroke before they get sick with anything.
When I was new to Virginia it took me several years to realize our tomato leaf disease was Septoria Leaf Spot. I even bought Early Blight resistant tomato seed one year and was sorely disappointed at the spotty leaves they got.
Beet greens resistant to cercospora will provide beautiful greens as well as roots. Early Wonder Tall Top is rated by Johnnys as the best beet for greens.
Days to maturity
Johnnys gives days-to-maturity from cool weather spring transplanting. They suggest adding 14 days from direct sowing (direct-sown crops suffer no transplanting shock, so grow faster overall, but you need to add in extra time from seeding to transplant size). Subtract 10-14 days for warm weather transplanting (as crops grow quicker then). Fedco lists days from direct seeding for many crops.They suggest subtracting 20 days from date of transplanting. With warm weather crops they list days from transplanting. For peppers the days listed are from transplanting to full-color maturity. Some catalogs list days to full-size green peppers only. “Early maturing” isn’t so useful if the seed rots in cold soil, so check for both pieces of info. Provider bean is cold-soil tolerant and fast-maturing.
Packet sizes: grams, ounces and seed counts
Take a steady look at packet size and seed specs (seeds/ounce or seeds/gram). Alas, this country has not yet fully metricated. Seeds are measured out in many ways. Go to www.metric-conversions.org/ and print yourself some conversion tables, or use the online calculators. Take a dark pen to your catalogs and write in the relevant numbers.
For a particular crop is “mild” better than “rich” or “robust”, or not? There are mild-flavored Asian greens such as mizuna, available in green, red and purple, and there are spicy mustard greens that look very similar: Golden Frills, Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frills, Red Splendor.
Ruby Streaks is an exceptionally beautiful plant. We tend not to like spicy mustard greens, but cut small into a salad mix, we have no trouble enjoying it.
“Compact”, “Mini” = small. Do your customers cook for just themselves? They’ll want mini. Are you supplying institutional kitchens? They’ll usually want full-size crops, unless they like “snack-size cucumbers” which they serve whole, with less work. If you want big cabbages, don’t buy from catalogs which have carefully chosen small to medium-sized heads because that’s what most people want these days. It can be hard to compare weights with measurements. Small = 2-4lbs, 4-6”. “Mini-broccolis”Santee, De Cicco won’t produce a big head, ever, just florets. Be sure your crew knows what size to pick.
Mache (corn salad) is a very small vegetable, usually eaten when the whole plant is 3-4” across. Even if the variety description says “long leaves” it’s all relative – maybe they’ll be 4” rather than 3” if you let them really grow.
At the other end of the Rampancy Rating are these key phrases: “needs room to roam,”“vigorous vines”: you can’t sell vines! Are they worth the space? Be sure you plant with appropriate spacing. “Needs sturdy trellis”: is it worth the time?
“Will be bitter in hot weather.” “Prefers warm days and nights – expect reduced yields in cooler areas”– you have been warned! Remember to check this. It’s refreshing that some catalogs now are more upfront “Not heat-tolerant” says Fedco about Bush Blue Lake bean. If your spring heats up quickly, you’ll want greens that are bolt-resistant as well as cold-tolerant, so you can set them out early. Giant Viroflay spinach sure grows big leaves, but they don’t last long in our climate. Tyee is more bolt-resistant, much better for us. Big chicory, radicchio and endive leaves are going to be bitter if grown at the wrong time of year and not blanched. And sometimes even if you do: they are not uniform varieties.
“Concentrated Fruit Set” versus“long harvest season”: length of harvest season is best viewed as potential rather than promised. If Mexican bean beetles or downy mildew are likely to take down your crops, you might do better to sow successions more frequently and not worry about long harvest periods. “Uniform maturity” is definitely a plus if you are growing a drying bean, popcorn, edamame or other single harvest crop. “Holds well in the field” is to your advantage if you hope to pick three times a week for a month.
“Easiest for hand harvest” (E-Z Pick beans) means they come off the vine easily; but “better for hand harvest” can mean simply unsuitable for machine harvest (plants sprawl). “Intended to be picked very slender” means tough when big, so be sure you get a high enough price to justify the lower yield and extra harvest time. And be sure you can harvest every 36-48 hours, or you won’t have anything edible.
Some broccoli has “good side-shoot production” (Gypsy, Amadeus, Belstar). If side-shoots aren’t mentioned, it’s likely that variety was bred for crown cuts.
“Short-term storage only” – we usually read this as “not for storage.” Tendersweet is a fine cabbage for fresh use – its leaves are thin and sweet. Thin leaves dry out fast, so it’s not good for storage.
“Retains flavor when frozen or canned” “Best for sauerkraut” “Good for kimchee” “Easy to shell” These phrases are music to the ears of gardeners putting up produce for winter.
Onions and latitude
Latitude makes a difference with onions. Happily, more catalogs now state which latitudes each variety is adapted for. We’re at 38°N. No use us growing Red Bull (43°-65°), as the days never get long enough to initiate bulbing. Nor do we have much hope for Desert Sunrise (30°-36°) – because after the spring equinox, our hours of daylight are more than further south – they will start bulbing before having a chance to grow very big. A few small leaves cannot produce a big bulb.
Some vegetables commonly thought of as winter squash are in catalogs as pumpkins. Many cans of pumpkin pie filling are not made from round orange-skinned pumpkins, but from squash. Choose squash varieties that grow well in your area and make all the pies you want. Or make no pies and serve the squash baked, or in soups. There are four types of squash: Pepo, the classic pumpkins, pattypans, acorn squash, delicata, dumplings, zucchini and summer squash; Moschata, the long-storing usually tan ones with hard five-sided stems, such as butternut, cheese pumpkins and Seminole squash; Maxima, the (often large) ones with fat round corky stems, such as hubbards, buttercups and bananas; and Mixta, less-common older Southern types like Cushaws.
Research at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange this year showed that many Moschata squash varieties, the kind most resistant to bugs, are also tasty at the immature stage as “summer squash”. So ignore what you’re “supposed to do” and do what works!
“Parthenocarpic” plants can set fruit without pollination, so good for hoophouse growing or production under rowcover or insect netting. Some new varieties of cucumbers and squash are parthenocarpic, and higher-priced, but some old favorites also happen to be parthenocarpic, Little Leaf pickling cucumber, for example.
“Gynoecious” plants have only female flowers, so yield can be higher. These plants still require pollination to set fruit, unless they are also parthenocarpic, so some seeds of another (pollinizer) variety are included in the packet. You’ll need to grow some of these, even though they won’t themselves give you the fruit you want. Sometimes the pollinizer seeds are colored, so you can be sure to sow some.
“Monogerm” beets produce only one seedling from each seedball/fruit. Others will need singling. Trade-off price versus time singling.
Warring sweet corn types
Don’t plant any Super Sweet varieties unless you put them at least 100ft away from other kinds, or you make sure they don’t flower within 10 days of each other. Mistakes will lead to horrible starchy kernels in both plantings. Think about this also if you are growing popcorn, dent corn, flint corn. Those dry corns also need to be separated from all sweet corns. Ignore the small print on this at your peril.
Super Sweet corns have other challenging features: the seed is smaller than normal corn, so your planter may need adjusting; Super Sweet seed needs to absorb twice as much water to germinate as normal corn; Super Sweets are more particular about seed depth (they do better at a shallower depth); Super Sweets have twice as much sugar as other corn and get sweeter after picking. It can get too much, so refrigerate promptly after harvest.
Too good to be true
New fancy types are often more risky. They don’t have all the problems resolved. Romanesco Broccoli – I don’t know anyone in Virginia who has successfully grown it. Flower Sprouts – hmmm. Try brand new things on a small scale first. All the fanfare over Indigo Rose tomato, the excitingly evil Deadly Nightshade color of the immature fruit, and then – blah flavor when ripe. “Good” flavor in a catalog may be the lowest rating. “Attractive purple pods” – Do they turn green when cooked? Purple carrots, striped green and white eggplant, white beets – will people buy them readily or will it be an uphill struggle?
Enjoy your winter catalog browsing! Here’s a cheering photo of wonderful fall colors at Twin Oaks. This is from Ezra’s blog A Year In the Woods
On Tuesday this week we picked fifty-two 5 gallon buckets of Roma paste tomatoes. We’ve been harvesting the four long rows every Friday and Tuesday, but last Friday had a rainy start and we didn’t harvest, so we knew there would be a lot more than usual on Tuesday. Our Food Processing crew makes these into sauce which we store for the winter, and because the crew only has access to the big-scale kitchen equipment necessary to tackle such loads on those two days, there was no point in harvesting before Tuesday.
Also, we knew from records we’d kept from previous years, that 8/9-15 is “Peak Week”, when the harvest is at its highest rate. Nothing else to do but rally lots of people and get picking! Although Twin Oaks Community has about a hundred people, they are not all sitting around waiting to be asked to help with task like this. Most people already have their work scheduled for the week. Still, we were lucky enough to get some extra help.
We started our shift with some energetic work, shoveling and raking to prepare some new beds for lettuce, spinach and turnips. Then we harvested some other crops, beans, squash, cucumbers, okra – the usual stuff for this time of year. We were waiting for the dew to dry off the tomato leaves, to reduce the spread of fungal diseases. (We’ve been appreciating relatively cool nights lately – nice sleeping weather, but dewy mornings.) Round about 9am we started in on the tomatoes, and thanks to a steady pace from the regulars and some extra drop-in helpers, we just got finished at noon.
One of the things I love about living communally is being able to show up at the dining hall at mealtimes and be fed! If I had to prepare my own meals, I wouldn’t eat as well, I’m sure. We lined up the carts of tomato buckets in the shade of some trees next to the dining hall and collapsed into chairs with plates of food. This was the official hand-off to the Food Processing crew. After lunch they washed, trimmed, chopped and cooked the tomatoes. We’d heeded their request to be sure not to use any cracked buckets this time, and I think we we re successful in finding 50 suitable buckets. They fill the buckets with water to wash the tomatoes, and buckets with holes in cause floods in the dining room or kitchen, wherever they are working.
A guest who helped us pick in the morning, worked on the processing shift too, and stayed to the exhausted end around 2.30 am. Not everyone stayed till the end, most people left after the chopping, but the crew manager, of course, was committed to being there. We got 112 half-gallon jars of sauce. Quite impressive. We’ll enjoy those next winter.
112 jars is about the same amount we lost last year in the big earthquake. We were pretty much at the epicenter of the August 23 quake, and among our troubles was a basement floor with 100 broken jars of tomato sauce.
Our Roma paste tomatoes are another of the crops I’ve been saving seed from, and selecting for resistance to Septoria leaf spot, and for earliness and yield. They are sold as Roma Virginia Select through Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Gone are the years when our Roma plants crashed to a mess of dead brown leaves by this point of the season. We still have some Septoria, but not a lot, and the plants carry on to produce more healthy leaves and good fruit.